The Doctrine I set forward concerning Jesus is this: Such a person must have actually lived, as the condition of conceiving such a character, for the reason that the power of creating such a character was never in the Hebrew mind, or any other.
At this point let me tell you how my thoughts were directed in the lines the argument takes in this discussion.
In the month of April, 1861, while a pastor in Sparta, Ga., I was reading one of Hugh Miller's books, First Impressions of England and Its People. The writer of this to me entertaining and instructive volume was comparing, on the occasion of a visit to the grave of Shakespeare, the great poet, Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens. Hugh Miller said (I believe the quotation is substantially correct; I have not seen the book in a long timeit was loaned to some of you): "No dramatist, whatever he may attempt, can draw taller men than himself."
I closed the book and said to myself: "Then Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did not invent Jesus."
It was not till February, 1864, that the thought, which I often brooded, was brought into a discussion. While in camp as a missionary chaplain with Longstreet's corps of the Army of Virginia, near Greenville, East Tennessee, I sketched rudely enough, one snowy day, the outlines of an argument, using it one night, soon after, in a sermon preached in the First Methodist Church, Atlanta, Ga. In the course of years it grew upon me into a series of lectures delivered to senior classes in Emory College. It outgrew the limits of a sermon at Monticello, Ga., August, 1878. My old students and certain life-long friends will pardon this much of personal reminiscence. For reasons connected with them these personal statements are introduced.
"No dramatist can draw taller men than himself." Hugh Miller did not mean that a writer may not describe greater men than himself, but that he cannot invent a character greater than his own. It is as plain as the axiom in physics that water cannot rise above its level. That which is created cannot be greater than that which creates.
It is very common for us to write of "taller men" than ourselves; we all do this. When you were but a college-boy you did not, as you will remember, shrink from writing essays upon Cromwell, Washington, Gladstone, Bismarck, and the few such men who have lived. I have known a young man to write fairly well of even Socrates. But he had the cyclopedias. He was not creating thinking out for himself and of himselfthe good and wise old sage.
Hugh Miller says, "Dickens knows his place." The gifted novelist did not attempt great characters. Shakespeare did; he was greater than any character he produced; "taller" than any man he "drew."
When you come to ask whether these four Jews, the evangelists, could have invented the character we know as Jesus you must remember that they had, first of all, in order to do it, to throw themselves outside the sphere of Jewish thought and sentiment. If to them had been granted all personal qualifications the conditions under which they lived made the invention of such a character impossible; they could not breathe the intellectual, social, and moral air in which they lived and do it. For this character, the Jesus of the evangelists, is not in harmony with the essential characteristics of the Jewish race or with the dominant influences of that time; this character antagonizes these characteristics and influences at every point.
Grantingand it is admitting an intellectual miracle that staggers credulitythat these men did meet the first condition for the invention of such a character, and overcame, as no other men ever did in any nation or time, the controlling influences under which they reveal in these writings of themselves, they were capable of such an intellectual and spiritual feat as inventing drama that should give Jesus to the world.
To have achieved such a result they must have been in breadth, depth, and elevation of intellect capable of thinking out the mighty doctrines that Jesus taught. And this, we may well believe, was the least part of their task.
To me it is incredible that these four men could have thought out the teachings of Jesus. For such thinking they lacked all things that history and philosophy show to be necessary for such thinking.
Why could not Socrates and Plato, great, learned, wise, and good, to whom came more than glimpses of heavenly truths, think out what the Sermon on the Mount contains?
Socrates and Plato, if mere men could do such thinking, ought to have thought out the Sermon on the Mount; for they had every gift that nature could bestow and every opportunity cultured Athens could offer. And they did their best to think out the truths that bind man and God together. They failed; and Plato sighed for the coming of a divine man who would make clear what to him was dark.
If Jesus never lived then the four evangelists, or men like them, thought out his wonderful doctrines. It is unthinkable.
But theirs was a far harder task than thinking out the truths attributed to Jesus in the gospels; they had also to think out a man who lived up to them. It is easier to write a great speech than to set before the reader a man he knows to be capable of making it; but this is easier than to proclaim a lofty doctrine of morals and show a man as living up to it. Their problem, if they thought it all out, was immeasurably more than the invention of the Sermon on the Mount and of the other discourses that move so easily on the same high plane of thought and spiritual life; it was to invent a life and reveal a life in absolute harmony with these matchless discourses. But Jesus lived the Sermon on the Mount and all else that he ever taught. Not once, in the least particular, in word or deed, does he fail; always he lives up to his teaching; he incarnated his doctrine. No other human being, before or since Jesus, ever lived up to the Sermon on the Mount; the best men and women have only approximated it; and it is the best who have most realized their failure. But Jesus lived his teachings so perfectly that it is only in his life that we truly read their meaning.
How shall we measure the capacity of these four, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, for creating this character of Jesus? By the revelations they make in their writings of themselves: their capacity and character.
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